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Yesterday, some 50,000 members of Britain’s National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) finished the first of three days of industrial action after failing to reach a settlement with train companies in a wide-ranging dispute about pay increases, working conditions, and compulsory redundancies.
As a result of the action, many commuters in Britain were forced to stay at home or find alternative modes of transport to get to and from work. In London, the industrial action saw most of the city’s Underground lines close or operate with significant suspensions, while commuter trains had massively reduced timetables.
The capital’s buses, as expected, took up much of the slack but many commuters chose to get in their cars and drive to work.
However, London has one of the highest rates of micromobility market penetration anywhere in the world with a litany of companies offering e-bikes, e-scooters, and even e-mopeds to residents to get around. In the face of strike action, might micromobility companies offer a way around and, more importantly, might commuters ditch rails for riding?
Moving London Around
Transport is absolutely central to London and its economy.
The English capital is sprawling and many Londoners and, according to Moovit, while the average commute time from work with public transport is 47 minutes, 48% of Londoners spend more than two hours per day in transit between work and home.
However, while passenger numbers have still not recovered to pre-pandemic levels on any lines, between April 2021 and March of this year the number of trips was considerable. There were some 179 million trips on the Thameslink services that bisect the capital from North to South and 126 million trips on London Overground services which cover vast swathes of the north, south, and east of the city.
When these services grind to a halt, along with the many commuter services operated by the likes of Southern Western Railway, Southeastern, and the Great Western Railway, which together accounted for more than 250 million trips over the same period, it becomes immediately clear just how acute London’s dependency on its railways is.
But, while industrial action and suspended services are important, Londoners, largely thanks to the pandemic have become less reliant on peak-time trains than they were in the past.
According to The Policy Institute at King’s College London, six in 10 London workers are staying at home at least one day per week while three-quarters of London workers think that we will never return to a standard five-day week in the office from 9 am until 5 pm. In fact, 79% of London workers who stay at home at least once per week cite avoiding the commute as the biggest single benefit of hybrid working.
A Two-Wheeled Revolution?
In March, London’s Santander Cycle hire scheme reported six recording-breaking months in a row with almost 27,000 hires per day.
Will Norman, London’s Walking & Cycling commissioner said at the time:
“I’m delighted that 750,000 rides took place in February, the highest ever number of rides in that month, echoing the wider trend of ever-increasing numbers of Londoners choosing to cycle. We know that many people took up cycling for the first time or returned to it during the pandemic, and we are determined to keep Londoners cycling and build on this further.”
However, electrically assisted two-wheel travel has grown significantly, as well, with new players joining the market and commuters jumping at the chance when traditional travel options take a turn for the worse.
Tier Mobility, for example, says that it saw a 72% rise in e-bike and e-scooter usage during last week’s Underground strikes with usage peaks before 8 am (34%) and after 5 pm (98%).
“Since its introduction to London’s streets, micro-mobility has been a welcome addition to the city’s public transport mix – offering a sustainable addition to the city’s existing transport network,” said Georgia Yexley, Tier Mobility’s General Manager for UK and Ireland.
“During this week’s disruption, our e-scooters and e-bikes are available to help London’s residents make their commutes and important journeys – even if their usual mode of transport is down. As usage numbers continue to rise, the role of micro-mobility in expanding the reach of public transport shouldn’t be under-estimated.
Similarly, Lime also saw large upticks in usage during industrial action in the capital.
“The last time there was a tube strike in London, we saw trips on that day increase by more than 95% compared to the same day the previous week,” says Alan Clarke, Lime’s Senior Director of Public Policy.
“Everybody wants to see the tube functioning to its full extent but whenever there’s a strike or disruption it’s a great opportunity for people to try a new form of environmentally friendly transport.”
Lime says that on Monday 6 June, when London Underground staff went on strike, it saw trips on e-bikes and e-scooters increase by 44% compared to the previous Monday. Perhaps more significantly, however, the number of first trips taken and new accounts created more than doubled by 150% and 144%, respectively.
Dott, meanwhile, says that the early signs show that yesterday (21 June) the total number of trips taken, again, was up by 150% compared to a normal day.
“During rush hour this morning, we saw more than double the number of rides compared to the same day last week as rail and tube travellers took advantage of the warm weather and switched to shared e-scooters,” explained Duncan Robertson, the company’s General Manager for UK and Ireland.
“We hope that new users who might not have previously considered Dott for their commute are discovering that our e-scooters can be the most efficient, enjoyable and environmentally friendly way to get around the city.”
HumanForest, still a relative newcomer to London’s micromobility market, is also seeing encouraging signs.
“Although the rail strikes are causing significant amounts of disruption for Londoners, we also see this as an opportunity for people to look beyond their normal mobility solutions and embrace our sustainable eBikes,” said Will Jansen, the company’s Head of Operations.
“Seeing such a tremendous uplift in rides when ‘conventional’ modes of transport grind to a halt demonstrates how much potential there is for growth in cycling. Whether it’s owned or shared, getting on two wheels in a congested city continues to prove it’s the best way to get around, no matter what might be getting in the way of your journey.”
Perhaps most significantly is that in May, when HumanForest bikes completely 150,000 trips in London, 70% of trips were by repeat customers — demonstrating that commuters are starting to change habits.
Of course, micromobility options will not suit all commutes. Those travelling on the main commuter line trains will likely not be able to find a bike or a scooter — even a Santander bike if you live in large parts of south London — to make their commutes.
However, as the number of options continues to grow and the areas that operators cover continue to expand, it seems as though micromobility might become an integral part of many London commutes.